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Running Social Encounters


There’s a reason “what’s my motivation?” is a cliche question for actors. The heart of a believable character is motivation, and every NPC you run should have a motivation, even if it’s just to get glass of water. Minor NPCs don’t need complex motivations. An administrative peon might want nothing more than to be left alone. A merchant probably wants the party to pay as much as possible for the least valuable merchandise he can offload on them. A craftsman might be dedicated to their art and be insulted when offered low prices for their goods, even if it’s the best they can get under the circumstances – it would be an insult to the craft to sell a masterwork sword for silvers, regardless of whether the craftsman won’t be able to sell it at all otherwise. A town guard might be motivated by loyalty to their community or the town’s ruler, by the money they’re paid and the security of their position, or might be dedicated to the idea of law and order itself.
More prominent NPCs may have multiple motivations, and those may conflict with one another at times. A king might have a loyalty to his people as well as to his cousin, the daughter of his aunt, who married the king of a neighboring land – so now that cousin is queen of the neighboring land. In times of famine, does the king hoard food to keep his people fed or share them with his beleaguered neighboring nation, not only an ally but the responsibility of a family member? A prominent town guard – say, the captain of the guard for a town that serves as main hub for several low level adventures – might have a loyalty to his community but also be greedy enough to try and make some money on the side. A little bribery won’t do any real harm, right? But where is he going to draw the line? Multiple motivations means that NPCs might plausibly do more than one thing, and they can serve as the impetus for great character moments as they’re pushed to decide between two things they care about. As the NPC approaches the crisis and realizes they must choose, they might turn to the PCs for help or the PCs might just happen to be informed of the situation, and they can try and persuade the NPC to pick one or the other. The party might be conflicted as to which route to choose. This is roleplaying, and it’s great. If you need to throw an NPC together quick, picking out one base and one noble motivation will usually give them enough depth for at least one full adventure.


People rarely wear their motivations on their sleeves. Instead, people have a self-image that they want to believe in and, usually, have others believe in. These identities tend to be fairly uniform across background and profession. Most knights want to be seen as honorable and chivalrous upholders of justice, most merchants want to be seen as clever, hardworking, and successful, most nobles want to be seen as benevolent and gracious leaders, most peasants want to be seen as honest and industrious. Remember, too, that this isn't a reputation they want to maintain for others (although it is usually also that), but how they view themselves. A scheming adviser who knowingly deceives people into thinking he's benevolent does not have an identity as a benevolent adviser, but instead probably has an identity as a brilliant strategist.
An identity may or may not be grounded in truth. Most knights have an identity of an honorable and chivalrous upholder of justice, but their actual actions are guided by their motivations, not their identity. Their identity defines how they talk more than what they do, has more to do with the excuses they give for their behavior than what that behavior actually is. A knight may identify as an upholder of justice, but if their actual motivations are personal loyalty to their king and rank greed, then they're going to extort wealth from the peasants whenever they can get away with it and make excuses about extracting a generously Spartan stipend from an ungrateful peasantry in order to sustain their ability to defend the land from evil, and never mind the fact that the numbers on how much the knight needs to stay in fighting shape vs. how much he's extorting favor the latter by a huge margin. He doesn't think about it and gets angry at anyone who brings it up.
On the other hand, people don't have to be disingenuous. Self-aware people whose identities accurately reflect at least one of their motivations do exist. You can have a knight who identifies as a defender of justice and also has an actual motivation to protect the innocent and uphold the law.
No one's identity ever perfectly matches their motivations because people have one identity and multiple motivations. It's not an issue of dishonesty, it's an issue of the mismatch between the logically ordered narratives our conscious minds build versus the impulsive, inconsistent chaos of our subconscious instincts. People can still be genuine in their identity by having it match one of their motivations, especially if that's the motivation they stick to when they come into conflict (and if successfully persuaded to pursue a conflicting motivation, such a person will update their identity to match what they really care about rather than making up lies to justify their existing identity).


Sometimes, the PCs will want to convince an NPC to do something that is orthogonal to, or even contrary to, their motivation. The skill by skill guidelines in the Art of Rulings included some one-roll examples, and here we’ll elaborate a bit on exactly what it means to act in a helpful versus merely friendly manner: A friendly person will consider the party friends or allies for purposes of any motivations they have to help their friends, and almost everyone has a motivation like "help the people who help me" or "I stick with my people no matter what" or whatever. What a friendly person will not do is pick one motivation over another on the advice of the person they're friendly towards. A friendly merchant might offer the party a discount because, so long as he's not taking a loss, it doesn't really contradict his motivation to turn a profit, but he won't give away goods for free or risk his whole shop being burnt down, because that does contradict his profit motive. There are occasionally anti-social people who are unwilling to help even when friendly unless it serves one of their other motivations because they don't have any motivations for friendship or gratitude or anything, but those people are rare.
A helpful person will pick one motivation over another for the sake of the person they're helpful towards, which means that normal people who have motivations relevant to friendship or gratitude or what-have-you will pick those motivations, and therefore the interests of the person they're helpful towards, even over other motivations. With the exception of the aforementioned anti-social types, a helpful person is willing to do almost anything to help whoever they're helpful towards. This doesn't mean the actual motivations they have should be ignored, however. A blacksmith might have "defend my friends, no matter what" as a motivation and consider the party his friends because he's helpful towards them. He'll even pick that motivation over another when the two conflict. That doesn't mean he'll chop off his forging arm just because the party asks him to, though. Without some kind of clear life-threatening danger to them, chopping his forging arm off won't defend anything. Even someone with a motivation to "make my friends happy" isn't going to cut a hand off just for the party's amusement, because the basic motivation for self-preservation and the motivation to make their friends happy aren't meaningfully in conflict just because some of their friends would be very slightly happier if the character in question lopped off a limb. Surely there are other things the character in question could do for the party (additionally, such a request would probably shift the NPC's attitude to unfriendly if not hostile - the party could buy their way out of that with a Persuasion check, but the DC would be very high).
On the other hand, Newt Gingrich recalls that at the height of his charm in the 90s, Bill Clinton could reliably convince him - Newt Gingrich - to agree to blatantly pro-liberal policies when negotiating in private. Newt would say that Bill would "pick my pocket" and eventually settled on a strategy of only ever negotiating with Bill in groups, where his charm powers were apparently less effective. Bill Clinton was able to reliably get Newt to act on some kind of motivation to friendship or loyalty or what-have-you, but in so doing convinced Newt to utterly violate his other motivations, so apparently that's possible.
On a similar note, it's important to note that a single check doesn't permanently shift an NPC's attitude. It is up to the discretion of the GM to determine when an NPC's attitude shifts permanently. What a Persuasion check does is convince someone to act as though they had a friendlier attitude regarding a single request or for the span of a single scene. Multiple successful Persuasion checks in a row will also generally cause an NPC's attitude to drift towards more favorability with the party, whereas Intimidation checks usually cause their default attitude to shift immediately to unfriendly or, if they're particularly prideful, maybe even hostile. If you convince someone to turn their back on their other motivations too utterly, however, they will feel scammed, rather than charmed, even if you use Persuasion, and that can cause their motivation to degrade.
No system I've ever seen has been remotely sufficient for determining these long term consequences for interpersonal relationships. The subject is too complex and too familiar to the average D&D player to be modeled with math that can be done at the table (and you can insert an obvious joke about socially inept D&D players if you want, but even the stereotypically awkward D&D nerd has enough experience to foil any efforts to systematize human relationships). As such, the GM must decide the long term consequences.


For more complex negotiations, the party needs to get more than one concession out of someone. Very big concessions, like a king joining a war, might have to be broken into multiple smaller concessions, like committing different units or resources to the war effort, which allows the PCs to convince him to anything from total mobilization to a token reinforcement. The total number of concessions needed for the party to get everything they want from a negotiation should usually be five, give or take a concession. The party has a total amount of patience with the interested party, which is decreased by one every time they fail a check. The amount is usually 1-2 with an indifferent party, 3-4 with a friendly party, and 5 with a helpful party. This is in addition to making the checks themselves easier.
The party might have to contend with someone arguing against them to try and persuade the king (or whoever) to do something else. A treacherous vizier in the pocket of the dark lord, for example, might argue to keep the armies home to defend the king’s own borders rather than uniting with their neighbors. In this case, the party must make opposed Persuasion checks for each concession needed from the king. In this case, the target of the Persuasion attempt has a separate patience score for both sides. Any time someone rolls a Persuasion that would fail to gain a concession even without opposition, the target loses patience with the persuader. If a persuader rolls a Persuasion attempt that would ordinarily succeed, but is outdone by an opposed check by another persuader, the successful persuader may have the target either grant them a concession or else lose patience with the opposing party. Generally speaking, when the target runs out of patience for one persuader, they will grant whatever concessions are still on the table to the other persuader, but sometimes they may still require persuasion even after the opposing persuader has been defeated.

Distinct NPCs

Regardless of whether you are using an extended negotiation, a single Persuasion check, or if you’re not rolling dice at all, it’s important to keep your NPCs distinct. A funny voice is one of the most stereotypical ways to do this, and while using a funny voice for an NPC does have its uses, those uses are not dramatic. A funny voice can accomplish two things. First, if you do it right it can make players laugh, and if the character isn’t meant to be taken too seriously that can be a worthy goal on its own. Second, different voices can help you differentiate between different NPCs who are both in the same conversation without constantly having to stop and identify which NPC you’re speaking as. You don’t generally want NPCs to just talk to each other while PCs are present, but you may well have two NPCs having an argument mediated by the PCs, or PCs arguing with one NPC for the favor of another. Bear in mind that funny voices are funny, so while you want NPCs who may interact frequently with one another to have distinctive voices, you don’t want to try and have a dramatic scene between one NPC represented by your normal voice and another represented by you putting on an outrageous French accent.
A better way to distinguish characters, whether you’re playing in voice or in text (where adding “[name] said” to the end of all dialogue is far less intrusive, so the problem of making sure PCs can keep track of who said what is much more easily solved), is to give them distinctive word choice. A half-baked wizard who wants to appear more brilliant than he is might use big words that he doesn’t quite know. A noble will demand respect from anyone who isn’t of similar birth or station, and be offended if treated as equal by someone they consider beneath them, especially if this noble is a lord for whom the traditions of feudalism are the source of significant political power. A street thug will be crude and straightforward, while a conniving merchant will be gracious but relentlessly vague. Some NPCs might be friendly, others spiteful, and some may act friendly despite having intense spite for the party (and the Persuasion DCs to match) while others might spew vitriol despite an unfailing willingness to help you idiots get out of trouble again.
Motivation and mannerism are by far the most important thing in keeping NPCs distinct, to the point where nearly all effort spent on building NPCs is usually best spent making more complex motivation and more believable mannerism than on virtually anything else. If every NPC has a goal and they pursue it and speak in a manner informed by their background, culture, and personality, they’ll feel like real people, and they’ll react largely as real people would to the PCs.